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President Barack Obama sounded good in his second election debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But he looked good, too.Watching these debates is a lesson in the power of visual communication. It is the way the rival candidates stand, smile and move, as much as their arguments, that tell us who they are.
Obama’s powerful comeback performance after his dismal first debate made excellent use of his looks, his style, his slender figure.
He managed to upstage his opponent just by the way he sat on a stool or listened to Romney speak with a quizzical, drily amused look. His biggest personal asset is his smile. In this debate, he used it to brilliant effect by grinning charmingly even as he delivered his most aggressive putdowns against Romney.
This is why reviews of the debate that, in striving for objectivity or attempting to undermine what was a clear victory for Obama, stress its “aggression”, are getting it wrong. This was an extremely confronational encounter – both men were effectively calling each other liars – but the president did not come over as unduly aggressive, because his relaxed appearance balanced his barbed words. This is why he was able to get laughs from the audience, which Romney could not achieve.
Do appearances matter in politics? Of course they do. US presidential debates were the stage on which that fact of modern public life was first made visible. In 1960, Republican candidate Richard Nixon stood against Democrat John F Kennedy; their televised debates were a disaster for Nixon. He sweated profusely and people though he looked shifty. Meanwhile, JFK … was JFK.
Romney did not sweat this week, nor did he crumble as Nixon did 52 years ago. The surprise of this US election is that, after the far-right freakshow of the Republican nominations race, Romney is a comparatively moderate candidate (on some issues) with a bipartisan track record as former governor of Massachusetts, which is not exactly Texas.
But in their second debate, Obama made him look old and square. Romney started to seem more plastic and sound more synthesised. Sometimes, appearances are truthful. It was not a flashy, contrived PR image that brought the president back into the race as he seeks a second term: it was an aura of authenticity. His visual self-presentation was powerful, stern and moving as he denounced his opponent’s “offensive” remarks on Libya.
He looked, literally, an upright man. Democrats must hope that visual impression stays in voters’ minds.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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